Fresh from breaking records at the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) awards in Canberra, the directors of Adelaide design firm Voice, Scott Carslake and Anthony De Leo, met with Broadsheet at their south-west city studio.
Voice settled into the area 11 years ago. They were neighbours to Paddy’s Lantern on Gilbert Street for seven before relocating to larger digs on Collins Street in 2013. “It’s a quiet corner of the city, more affordable than the east and accessible to us and clients,” says Carslake. “It just made sense and is a close walk to the Central Market.”
For a company specialising in brand exposure, Voice’s studio signage is curiously discrete. Once inside you’re immediately face to face with choice cuts from the company’s extensive portfolio and a well-stocked trophy shelf.
A curtain separates the creative side – comprising workstations for each of the designers, a record player and a desk covered in mid-process work, mockups and proofs – from the business side (a beautiful timber table and more examples of the studio’s output).
"We spend more time in the workplace than our homes, so it needs to be an environment where everyone feels motivated and relaxed,” says Carslake. “It’s an open plan, so there is complete transparency in all communications. When clients arrive they can see the space in action and get to say hello to all of us.”
There’s potted greenery everywhere. Concealed behind a low wall is the studio’s engine – a thrashed (but adored) Giotto espresso machine. Everyone who enters is immediately offered a coffee, and the latte-art rivalry between the design team is fierce.
At last month’s AGDA awards, Voice collected a coveted “pinnacle” (earned by scoring above an average of 90% from the jury panel) for its collaboration with photographer Che Chorley on his book Land Sea You Me. It’s the third consecutive year the company has pocketed a pinnacle – a first for an Australian studio. They also flew home with several distinctions and a judges’ choice award.
Land Sea You Me retells Chorley’s six-month cycling odyssey from Western Australia to Victoria photographing the South Australian coastline from the air, from the water, from the shore and from the saddle. It was always going to be challenging to relate the experience in print. “It’s not a standard book-design job,” says Carslake. “Most book design is layout, essentially, but this is a journey – it’s like a narrative, and a story.
“The tactility of who he is and what he did, that stuff starts to give you ideas of how it should feel and look and the texture of the book. And then we come at it the other way – from our perspective – and think, ‘how do we take all this and turn it into a visual document?’ That’s the only way to get a true result that’s authentic.”
A hand-bound copy of Land Sea You Me stands alongside the studio’s other award-winning work for brands such as D’Arenberg, Hither & Yon, Rio Coffee, Longview and McLaren Vale Distillery.
“We work with all our clients on that level,” says De Leo. Voice’s practice extends beyond the look and feel of a product, piercing right to the heart of a business. It establishes a culture to surround and attract people to the brand, not just eye-catching labels that shift units.
Clients will sometimes arrive at the studio without even having named their whatever it is and together with Voice, create an identity that permeates through packaging, online presence, market strategy and more. “We work with the owners and founders. They’re the decision makers, so we can have those really honest conversations,” says De Leo.
“We talk to them about them, and their business, and what they’re hoping to achieve; what do they look like in five years if they’re ridiculously successful? Once we understand all of that, we take it back and think, ‘How does design help them get there?’”
Voice asks big questions like, “Why are you in business?” “If you can’t answer that, you’re going to struggle,” says Carslake. “We rip them to shreds.”
The ultimate creative, and how the studio arrives there, all germinate from these conversations. “Briefs are horrible,” says De Leo. “A brief is a reason to start a conversation, but then the brief is dead. Then it’s about talking … that’s where you learn everything.”
Voice must be one of only a few studios that encourages clients to contact them out of hours, as and when inspiration strikes. “We understand it. We get why they do it. That’s why we enjoy that,” says Carslake.
And if the client doesn’t agree on the result? “It means you haven’t done your job right before that,” says Carslake. “There’s been a hitch, a breakdown.” Agreeing on a distinct point of reference – an ambition – right from the start, and delivering on that, is everything. “When we present creative we always say, ‘This is what we wanted to achieve’ because it’s never too late for [the client] to go, ‘No that’s not right’,” says De Leo.
Too much freedom can be treacherous. A blank canvas offers no direction or limitations and, “You can end up God knows where,” Carslake warns.
In 18 years, Voice has never chased clients. De Leo and Carslake acknowledge the luxury in this, but have worked hard to earn it.
“There’s nothing fundamentally inspiring about the way it started,” De Leo admits. “It was just two blokes who got on well and had a similar ethos in terms of design work – which helps. At 21, 22, what do you have to lose?” says De Leo. Carslake adds, “It’s as though someone said, ‘Do you want to go on a surfing trip?’ ‘Oh yeah.’ ‘Do you want to start a design business?’ ‘Oh yeah.’”
The pair has watched the industry shift and grow. Rather than moving with it, the quality of their work has kept them ahead of the times. In recent years, the role of the designer has come publicly to the fore. As social media bombards audiences with high-quality visual content, it seeps into our everyday decisions. Knowing how to cut through the noise is important. Voice’s experience has taught them that authenticity is one of the best ways to cultivate meaningful relationships within markets.
They recognise their strengths and limitations, enlisting the best talent to execute each project. “We’re not illustrators, we’re not photographers, we’re not copywriters, we’re not brand strategists,” says De Leo. “Collaboration is a huge part of what we do, all the time.”
“Great design is really powerful,” De Leo says. “Good design is good design – it’s not offensive, it does the job adequately. But it will never create emotion and have power – and that’s what people want.